Finding more speed, not medals, motivates Dal’s Isabel Sarty

Finding more speed, not medals, motivates Dal’s Isabel Sarty

By: Monty Mosher

As is the case with most athletes, Isabel Sarty's greatest advances generally come when no one is watching all that closely.

She's fine with that.

It's hard to dispute that Sarty, who grew up in Bedford, N.S., and now lives in Halifax, has moved into the spotlight in AUS swimming. She recently dominated a swim meet hosted by her Dalhousie Tigers, earning her U Sports athlete of the week and a conference record along the way.

But Sarty is quick to remind she is a 19-year-old sophomore still learning her way as a varsity athlete. She's doing it while balancing the demands of a neuroscience program.

"I spend a lot of my free time in the library," she said this week, emphasizing there is no free time, really.

It's hardly glamorous. Varsity swimmers generally have to get into the pool early in the morning in order to get to class on time.

Time management a learned skill

Learning how to manage time has been part of her development at Dalhousie. But the early start to the day is something swimmers at every level learn early.

"It actually helps me get into a rhythm and a daily routine," said Sarty, a member of the Halifax Trojans swim club when not swimming for the Tigers. "It doesn't feel like a lot. It doesn't feel like I'm trying to balance everything. It just feels like I'm going from one thing to the next thing. It just helps me stay on track."

For many years she balanced swimming and ballet, almost down the middle. It was a hard choice to put her dancing aside in Grade 12 to give more attention to swimming.

She came to swimming early when her parents took her to the pool in Bedford. Before long, she and her sister Julia, who also now swims for Dalhousie, were on the local swim team.

"I always really loved the water and I loved swimming," she said.

Ballet provided her an important balance. She didn't want swimming to be all consuming.

"It kept my focus split between different things. Swimming didn't overwhelm me too early. I didn't get too focused too soon."

Ballet helped keep her grounded

There were other benefits, including core strength and flexibility. "But I think the main thing is it just helped me stay grounded."

She knew swimming might take her places when she made Team Atlantic, allowing her to compete in Montreal, when she was in Grade 7. But she still never got ahead of herself, even when she was setting provincial records.

"That was eye-opening. It allowed me to see where swimming could take me if I kept on improving. I got to see swimmers from Quebec and Ontario to see what they were doing. The fact that I was even at the same camp as them, it kind of sunk in that if I kept working hard I could get better."

If she was good at swimming upon her arrival at Dalhousie, she didn't think that way. She still doesn't.

"I was always working to get better and better and I never stopped to say I'm good. That never happened. It still has never happened."

For Cansdale, Sarty is a competitor who "looks to succeed in all areas of her life."

"She works as hard at school as she does in swimming and it's that drive that pushes her to greater successes," he said. "I believe she still has plenty of room for improvement in both pursuits."

Medals aplenty

Sarty helped the Tigers to a win in the Kemp-Fry Invitational meet on Nov. 18 at Dalhousie. She won all four freestyle races – 100, 200, 400 and 800 – and was part of three winning relay teams.

She broke Molly Wedge's conference record in the 100 freestyle in a time 55.66. The 400 freestyle relay team also broke the conference standard in 3:49.18.

To put her 100-freestyle time in perspective, it is within four seconds of the Canadian record held by Olympic gold medallist Penny Oleksiak.

As a rookie last season, Sarty won seven gold medals at the AUS swim meet to earn swimmer of the meet. She was seventh in the 100 freestyle and ninth in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle at nationals and led her team in total points accumulated.

She moved to Halifax when she was in junior high and came to know Cansdale through the provincial program. Her mother works at Dalhousie.

"I was always around the university and I always loved it. I thought it was beautiful. I had a chance to train with some of the Dalhousie swimmers when I was growing up. It was just a gradual exposure to what the Dalhousie swim team offers."

She had friends in neuroscience who told her about the program. All of it fit together perfectly for her.

All about getting better

Her decision to study neuroscience is part of a desire to end up in health care. It might be in medicine, but she has time to decide that later.

Sarty has already qualified for nationals and will be a threat to win medals in February. There will be greater expectations because of her success. Her teammates push her every day to get better and she does the same for them.

"I really don't go into training every day thinking about going for medals at a competition. We've been coached as we've grown not to think about placings and times. You don't think about the outcome. You think about how you are going to get there.

"I think about improving my best times, but I don't even think about specific times I want to go. I just know I want to go faster."

(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter with more than 30 years covering university sport. He can be reached at

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